[Beware, Traveler, spoilers for the series below]
I've finally finished the first season and I'm still not crazy about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
I say "finally" because good god did it take me a long while. I'd been recommended the show by an enthusiastic friend ages ago (not to mention by my social media, Netflix, and an excellent Rotten Tomatoes rating), and started it in the beginning of 2018, looking for some stress relief at the start of a new semester. I went in 110% convinced that I was going to fall head-over-heels for this show, so convinced in fact that I put it off solely because I couldn't afford to become obsessed in 2017 with anything not on my PhD Candidacy list. Thus, it took me about ten episodes and a fair amount of soul searching to realize that I wasn't loving the raved about comedy-drama. At all.
On the surface Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is everything I should love. Female driven story? Check. Fun musical numbers? Check. Undermining a host of assumptions like you can't have bi characters or Asian leads or an overweight woman who's never the butt of a joke? Check, check, check. There's a lot to praise about this series... so why am I so turned off by it? Oh, there's plenty I could tackle here, from the show's vague treatment of mental illness to its supposed deconstruction of the term "crazy," but I want to focus on the one aspect that most overtly turned my stomach; the thing that moved it from my "good but not great sitcom" category into "I actively do not want to watch this."
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is really obsessed with cheating.
It's at the very heart of the show: Rebecca is a high-powered lawyer who's been spiraling for a while, trying to convince herself that she's happier in her city job than she actually is. After a particularly vicious panic attack she runs into Josh, an ex-boyfriend from summer camp (and I use the term "boyfriend" incredibly loosely here considering that they were just kids at the time). With the classical soft lighting, slow motion, and a meta chorus to tell Rebecca "I'm in love," she immediately becomes obsessed with Josh, so much so that she moves to California to be near him. The first third of season one is concerned with getting Rebecca to admit that there's more going on than----as the pilot title says----the fact that "Josh Just Happens to Live Here!" The rest of the season follows Rebecca's attempts to secure Josh now that she's admitted that she might have dropped her entire life to follow him home. The problem is that Josh already has a girlfriend.
I was immediately wary of this setup. I don't like cheating----physical or emotional----and ultimately don't find it to be an engaging conflict. I don’t think that it adds depth to a story. It just makes the characters into assholes because if you’re so incapable of communicating that you might want to change/end a relationship, you shouldn’t have had that relationship in the first place. Regardless of that, it was clear to me—intentionally by the show---that Rebecca didn't really move to California because of Josh. Josh is just the convenient excuse. Yes, it's a bit paradoxical considering that Rebecca denies her interest for so long, but admitting that you like a hot guy is a more acceptable reason in our society for making a terrible career choice than admitting that you had the supposedly perfect life of wealth and power and you hated it. The subtext is clear and I dutifully kept chugging along through the schemes and the meta-songs, waiting for Rebecca to admit that she doesn’t actually love Josh. Josh is merely the catalyst she needed to escape a life wreaking havoc on her mental health.
Except...we never get there. A “dream ghost” in episode fifteen tells Rebecca that Josh is just another illusion, that there’s love in the form of friends and family and passions in her life, but of course her revelation doesn’t last. We get two episodes of Rebecca putting her life together before she’s sleeping with Josh in the season finale and the “Who will she end up with?” question once again takes center stage. In season one we're beaten over the head with the idea that without that there’s (apparently) no show. If women won't kill themselves in a high-powered job but they also won't obsessively chase after a guy... what do they do then? The show says, "Nothing." There's just no entertainment or conflict if a woman isn't agonizing over her love life.
So we get a narrative riddled with throwaway lines and side-plots that treat dysfunctional relationships as the joke we’re supposed to laugh at and agree with, rather than the real, underlying conflict that the characters should be working through. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is excellent at making relationships the focus of the story while endlessly reassuring the audience that no, they’ll never really work through their problems. Because then we wouldn’t have a plot. And you wouldn’t be entertained. Except that’s banking on the fact that I am entertained by women trying to steal boyfriends away and men endlessly torn over who they “really” love. Greg tells Rebecca that he’s willing to let her “settle” for him while knowing damn well she can’t go five minutes without plotting how to get closer to Josh and abandon him in the process. Josh tells Rebecca that he’s attracted to her but in love with Valencia, even though his feelings are obviously more complicated than that and now he’s emotionally cheating on them both. Paula’s husband mentions how he almost slept with Misty from the shipping department and the two of them laugh it off as a joke. Paula mentions how she almost slept with a new client at their firm—a whole episode’s worth of drama there—and that’s also brushed away as a justifiable reaction to a marriage that's going through a rough patch. The fact that the show has Rebecca stop Paula at the last second and doesn’t comment on her own hypocrisy is beyond frustrating to me.
Scott eventually does cheat on Paula and that time there are actual repercussions—a confusing contrast to how cheating was discussed between them before. I guess an ‘almost’ makes all the difference? When Rebecca accidentally sends an incriminating text to Josh a team of lawyers drop their work to help her break into his apartment and delete it before he can see, helping maintain her status of “I want you to dump your girlfriend but, you know, I won’t tell you why.” She has flashbacks to her childhood where a boyfriend in college cheats on her because “you never said we were exclusive,” but that’s never considered as a potential source of Rebecca’s problems. The message Rebecca is supposed to take away is that she should focus on her passion for singing instead—which is great! Forget about romance for a second! … Except of course that doesn't last. Again, there’d be no show if Rebecca really found fulfillment in something other than the mediocre guys she surrounds herself with. She and Josh kiss in the courthouse (while he's still with Valencia) because they were “caught up” in the difference they made for the town. Josh finds the huge stack of pictures Rebecca has taken of him… and the revelation is that she’s “in love" with him, not that she’s a stalker. There’s an obvious and wildly uncomfortable moment where Josh and Valencia are compared to Rebecca’s relationship with her father: “He loved me and then she ripped me away from him!” The revelation of her father’s doucheness aside (her mother did not, in fact, separate them like a young Rebecca thought), I could have done without the vague, pedophilia undertones…
The most obvious example of this infidelity obsession is in the characterization of Paula. Starting from episode one where she decides that Rebecca uprooting everything in an attempt to win Josh's love is brave rather than crazy, her entire life comes to revolve around getting the two of them together. Each episode she’s helping Rebecca plot a new scheme to get Josh to notice her, helping to back up whatever lie she’s just told (they are both numerous and complex), or is otherwise badmouthing anyone (Greg) who dares to mention that Rebecca isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of great things to say about Paula’s character—from her otherwise hilarious personality to her various insecurities—but her status on the show overrides everything else. She exists solely to support cheating, to champion Rebecca and pressure Josh into abandoning Valencia. There’s no world in which I find that enjoyable.
Because Valencia doesn’t deserve that. Yeah, let’s talk for a moment about how the show pulls from all the worst tropes about women in order to build a character that “deserves” to be abandoned. Valencia is a super hot, health food conscious, somewhat dimwitted yoga instructor. Horrible right? She does have legitimate faults including being too controlling and not giving Josh’s ideas the attention they deserve, but the show isn’t concerned with developing her character enough to tackle those problems. So ultimately Valencia is left as a flawed but mostly good person. A normal human being. Yet the tropes she embodies rely on her actually being hate-worthy, of being recognizable as a genuinely manipulative bitch… and she’s not. She yells about how Rebecca is trying to steal her boyfriend… because Rebecca is. She cries because Josh is emotionally cheating on her… and he is. Valencia invites Rebecca on a beach trip to prove that she’s a stalker… because she is. We're encouraged to hate Valencia while simultaneously needing to ignore that she's constantly in the right. When we come right down to it, the narrative isn’t really interested in undermining Rebecca’s authority. We’re still supposed to root for her despite her treatment of others. She’s presented as the stereotypical underdog—the not as hot, junk food obsessed nerd with awkward tendencies—that we’re meant to root for, even when the characters claim otherwise. Yes, we have moments in the show where the writing seems to say, “The use of these stereotypes is integral to our point” but we never actually get to that point. It's the veneer of subversion with no real change; pointing out flaws before going right back to celebrating them. There’s a whole song where Rebecca has the revelation that she’s really the “villain of her story” and Valencia is the protagonist she’s been hurting in her campaign to get Josh:
I'm the villain in my own story
I'm the witch in my own tale
Though I insist I'm the protagonist
It's clear that my soul is up for sale
I'm the villain in my own story
The bad guy in my TV show
I'm the "who" in the "whodunit"
When I go to hell I'll run it
As Satan's CFO!
Why? Why are you doing this to me?
Because I'm jealous of you and your life! You're so skinny and Josh is so perfect that I want to take it all for myself! And now, I'll cook you into the traditional dish of Dinaguan and serve it to Josh's family! Ha-ha-ha-ha!
Which would be great if Rebecca used this moment to change or the narrative started treating her as the actual antagonist. Yet again Rebecca's revelations in one episode don’t amount to anything in the next. Everything just resets in service of the supposed humor of watching a woman obsessively compete for a hot guy. Rebecca might say that she’s not the protagonist… but she most certainly is. She says she’s evil, but demonstrates no willingness (or perhaps no ability) to change. If anything, the over-the-top wicked witch/princess comparison here undermines any sincerity in the epiphany and Rebecca’s newfound hatred for herself just brings her more attention. She is the embodiment of a person who does something terrible, immediately bursts into tears wailing about how they’re an irredeemable monster, and everyone is left comforting them instead of acknowledging the problems they caused in the first place. Rebecca is stuck in a vicious cycle and though the show loves to acknowledge that cycle it has no real interest in getting her out of it.
Because although plenty of people have assured me that the show gets even better, I’ve picked up a lot of spoilers implying that Rebecca finding an identity outside her obsessive "romance," (i.e. stalking) is tenuous at best. The “Will they won’t they?” setup continually drives the narrative, just like every other romantic comedy out there, and though there are individual episodes that say “Hey, maybe [insert relationship of your choice here] isn’t very healthy” it's only an acknowledgement. Never a call to action. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is excellent at gesturing towards subversion even while its core messages remain incredibly damaging. Let's sing about how women shouldn’t have to hurt themselves to look good! Or how we don’t get paid enough! Stuff like that. It's all performative---literally---and never exists within the actual context of the show. Upbeat songs about contracting UTIs don’t mean much when faced with a story that a) perpetuates the myth that women need a man to be happy and b) that they will (and should) do absolutely anything they can to achieve that—including hurting other women. And yes, I get that this is partly intentional. Rebecca is a terrible feminist who only thinks she’s all that. Supposedly we’re meant to pick up on the difference… it just feels like the show too often forgets the point it’s trying to make about Rebecca’s beliefs vs. her actions. Or hell, it isn’t sure about what the point was in the first place. The mere fact that people insist the show gets better about these issues and then highlight late season 2, season 3, season 4 as the moment it happens... why should I wade through 30+ episodes of this on the off chance it'll subvert itself later? And what about everyone watching the show as it airs? No one had a crystal ball into the future and if I'd watched season 1 in 2015 I never would have made it past the first few episodes because there wouldn't have been anyone around to insist that it improves. What a show puts out is what we're dealing with, period. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's messages in season 1 don't become less damaging just because a season 4 now exists.
As said, some people like this sort of setup. Some people love watching self-destructive characters, the anti-heroes and the morally gray who are, in many respects, relatable. I keep hearing that a lot. That Rebecca is realistic and relevant, a representation of what women are really like—not picture perfect dolls or evil vixens, but something in between. Except I don’t relate to Rebecca. Not really. Oh, on the surface she’s extremely relatable. I too want to gorge on junk food all day, rant about the patriarchy, and get a better hold on my mental health. But it’s just that: surface stuff. At her core Rebecca is a woman who is willing to backstab others to get what she wants, who is obsessed with having a man in her life, who’s willing to condone and encourage cheating if she thinks it will bring her happiness (it won’t, a lesson she outright refuses to learn), who rejects every treatment from medication to advice because they don't serve her selfish goals, and who surrounds herself with other people who think and act the same way she does. Those aren’t virtues that I can get behind. Looking past her desire to sit around in PJs all day, there's nothing about Rebecca that I want to emulate. I find no satisfaction in watching her continually destroy her life and other's lives while the show tries to uphold her as the hero.
We love flawed characters, but there’s something to be said for character improvement as well. I’ve never been drawn to doom and gloom narratives where everyone is irredeemable right from the start and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is basically that story with a flashy, bubblegum coating to distract you. The people in this show are (with very few exceptions) pretty damn horrible and I find myself unwilling to root for any of them. For some that equals great TV, but I’m already living in a world filled with god-awful people. I don’t need to subject myself to them in my downtime as well.
So no, I won’t be continuing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Sorry to all my obsessed friends and my insistent Netflix queue. I honestly believe there are better, brighter stories out there for us to spend our time on.